Silent Story

On the model of a silent movie
*****

A dog is lying down in front of a fireplace. Close-up on glowing embers. The dog’s flank goes up and down deeply. The embers die. The dog twitches.

Close-up on a window with a round face framed by a fur hood staring in. An ungloved hand knocks on the pane.

Cut to a child curled up on stairs. It appears to be sleeping in a onesie. It is huddled with a blanket. It opens its eyes and goes to the window. The hand points to something. The dog and child file out of the room and outside through a doggie door. The man puts the child in a fur-lined pouch and slings him on his back. The child falls back asleep. The dog follows.

The same child appears now to be sleeping in the snow. It is still tucked into the pouch and is smiling. The dog is curled around the child, eyes open, watching the man deftly building an igloo around them. Flames lick firewood, a small, well-contained fire.

The man is now standing near a hole in the ice. He is very still but his eyes are open. We watch him do nothing for a good 30 seconds.

Back to the igloo. The child is awake and near the fire. The flames are higher, the child is tinkering. A kettle is suspended over the flames. Steam can be seen coming out of the kettle. All movements are slow. The dog’s ears perk up. The fat man crawls in. He fillets wet fish, throws the entrails to the dog. The man and the child eat the fish raw and drink a dark, hot beverage. The child is lost in thought, mouthing something. The man chews with relish.

The man, the child and the dog crawl out of the igloo. Shot of the night sky and what appears to be northern lights. Steam comes out of their mouths. The man fastens the child to his chest and wears his coat over it. We barely notice the head sticking out. The dog walks alongside the man. They walk in a barren environment until we see a church spire amongst smaller buildings. We see a milkman doing his rounds.

The dog crawls through a doggie door in a large brick building. The child hugs the man and slowly follows the dog through the small opening, blanket in hand.

The man stares at the door. We watch him do nothing for a good 30 seconds. He turns and walks away.

Party

The mere sight of the scale had set her off. Flashbacks of purging and gorging came uninvited to the forefront of her consciousness. She hid her past well. Married, two gorgeous children. Sure, she had her neuroses, but who didn’t? It was fashionable to see a psychiatrist. She needed to, just to stay even-keeled. She tried very hard to pretend the scale was of no interest to her. In her own house, it was hidden from view. She reapplied her make-up, turned to leave, took her shoes off and weighed herself. Nothing. The scale was broken! After all this anguish and dickering, she was left with only shame and anger. To have succumbed to temptation for nothing!

She storms out of the washroom and finds the host. She asks her in low hushed tones, with a twinkle in her eyes and a laugh in her voice “What’s with the broken scale in the washroom?” The host pauses – “Ha! It’s electronic, you need to set it by applying a bit of pressure, just a tap of the toes to the surface. Don’t you have one of those? It saves the batteries’ energy.” “Oh, ha, ha, ha.” She gives a strained little laugh and waves a finger at her. “You had me fooled, there, for a minute. I thought you were trying to pass it off as a work of art.” Both women laugh, in that high-pitch falsetto that passes for comradery and good times in a party. Someone grabs hold of the hostess “The food is splendid, and so are the waiters! Who is catering…?”

She slinks off to try again. An informal line has formed, snaking down the hall. Helpfully, she points people to other washrooms, this way and that. It is a large mansion, there are 5 powder rooms, strategically located within it. One person goes in search of another washroom, but, maddeningly, the others stay put, chatting and joking around. They are in no hurry. She waits, anxiety slowly building up. Everybody has a drink in their hands, everybody stays forever in the washroom. It is beautiful, with a full-size Roman bath, gilded apparatus… and a state-of-the-art scale.  She looks at herself in a mirror – something else that has been banned from her home. Her emerald dress sets off her freckled skin and red hair. She sees the martini in her hand, and calculates the calories. She holds it for effect, does not drink alcohol. She is slim and gorgeous, her husband tells her. He even said she could afford to put on some weight.

She smiled sweetly at him, gave him a peck on the cheek and answered, “I love you too.” He is infatuated with her, thrilled of her trophy wife who slid in place to replace his previous trophy wife. He had a ready-made family. The kids were at an adorable age, and he held on to them. The switcharoo with the wives happened discreetly, a small wedding of 200 close associates. He did not want to make a big deal out of it. She held her own, though the days and hours preceding the big event had been nerve-wracking. She was in hysterics, looking at her slim body in the gorgeous white dress with despair. “I am fat, fat, fat and ugly.” He did her best to reassure her, but her eyes held daggers and she spit her venom. He had put it down to nerves. The event went without a hitch, Angelina being the flower girl, Billy bringing the rings on a cushion.

She has a knot in her stomach. It must be the canapes.

Dexter

This morning, Dexter left me. We had argued the night before. We had come back from a walk and an hour later, he was begging me to go out again. I was watching the news and got impatient at his begging. I snapped at him, “No, stay.” He left a puddle in the hall and went for his bed, dejected. Of course, I walked into it, got mad, called him names I now regret. We didn’t make up and slept uneasily. I imagine he must have spent the night stewing, reliving the hurts and frustrations of our relationship because when I let him out this morning, he had a faraway air. He took his favourite toy and blankie and headed out.

I watched him tenderly from the back-door steps, remembering his puppy days, not wanting to acknowledge last night’s harsh words. I did not apologize. It never occurred to me how deeply I had hurt his feelings. He walked away purposely, without looking back, with bravado in his step. I saw him disappear in a hole in the hedge – I had not repaired it, as I had said I would. He wiggled in, his blanket staying behind lying on the ground. I called out, then “Hey, Dexter, what you doing, boy?” then saw the blanket slowly disappear between the bushes, dragged by an unseen force. I felt then that he was waving a hankie goodbye. It melted my heart and I started worrying.

I went back in for my cup of coffee, still believing he would return for his morning meal and nothing more would be said about it. It was Saturday, traffic was light. He would be back. I did not want to make the first steps. For chrissakes, he was a dog, I was the superior being! Nevertheless, I decided to bake his favourite cookies, as a peace offering. When I had run away as a kid, my little suitcase full of books and apples, my mother had let me know she was about to bake my favourite cookies. It nagged at me and eroded my resolve. I had turned back at the end of the street. I had made my point known and stood my ground.

I was hoping Dexter would feel the same way and decide to forgive me. I hadn’t been a great master, preoccupied and distant. I didn’t play nearly enough, was often frustrated with him. I put the cookies in the oven, and set the fire to low. I would have to wait 45 minutes for them to bake. The coffee was bitter. I threw it out. I had to fetch my own paper. I poured myself an orange juice and took my vitamins. It tasted vile after the coffee.

I settled at the table with the paper to wait for his return. The phone rang. Irrationally, I thought it was him. It was nosy Sue, from three doors down, who said she had seen Dexter go by with a determined look on his face. He had ignored her calls and she wanted to know if I knew he was on the run. I thanked her and hung up. He was headed towards the park. I grabbed my coat and turned the oven off, turned the lights off. I curled his leash in my pocket with the poo bags and headed off. I hoped he would welcome my sorry self and find it in his heart to pardon me. I sure couldn’t find enough love in my own to excuse my behaviour.

I walked heavily to the park. I saw him lying on the ground near a toddler. My heart skipped a beat. The toddler had been crying, and he was licking him tenderly. He had pushed his favourite toy at the baby’s feet and covered him with his blankie. What a handsome dog! So caring! The mother came close and surveyed the scene. She patted him and cooed. She picked up the baby, the blankie and the rubber bone. Dexter followed them as they headed out. The divorce was final.

I went home and threw out the cookies.

Adrian’s Wall

I stop by Adrian’s farm. He is out and about, as always, this time repairing a dry stone wall. The wall is sturdy, built a century ago. He’s filling the joints with loose gravel, walking on it to test its solidity. He seems content. From the high wall, he waves at me. I take it as an invitation to come forward.

“Give me a hand, will you?” he asks. I look around. There were slabs of limestone in the back of his pickup. “I want to extend the wall a bit, try my hand at dry walling.” I nod, staring at my feet. We start unloading some stones. He is muscular, on a small frame. I am all limbs, a bit uncoordinated, still getting used to the length of them. We work well together, in silence. Once we’re done unloading, he stands there, studying the stones. I move to leave him to it. He looks up.

“Those structures are amazing,” he says. “There is a trick to it.” He’s a gentleman farmer, always trying out techniques. I must admit he fascinates me. I am younger than him, and stronger. I’ve always lived on the land but my father, though ingenious and clever with his hands, does not explore ancient methods. He goes with tried and true, or else explores modern machinery. I learn by watching, and escape to Adrian’s, when I have a chance.

He’s holding a slab in his hands, weighing it carefully. He seems to be communing with it, his movements deliberate as he places one, then another, side by side, methodically. He’s using a wooden mallet to bring them closer, a chisel to make them fit, loose gravel to add friction. I start handing him the next stone I think will work best. Sometimes, he cannot see it, and he looks up with a question in his eyes. I position it as I see it and he grunts his appreciation. The crickets chirp unrelentingly. Finally, he stretches his back, signalling a break.

We walk to a tree, where a thermos and two tumblers await. He smiles shyly. “I was hoping you would drop by. It’s a back-breaking job.” I accept the weak tea in the metal tumbler. It’s icy cold and very sweet. He also has bread and cheese, and tart apples. It feels good to rest and eat in the tree’s shade, legs fully extended on the grass, the muscles suddenly aware that they’ve been straining for the past few hours, surprised and confused by the relief they feel.

He won’t shut up then, tells me that he wants to make an arch, with no mortar, but is a bit concerned about lawsuits. He laughs at his own joke, giddy with the sun. I smile, unaccustomed to such merriment from him. My hands are still feeling the weight of the stones, aching to continue on. There is something deeply satisfying in the technique. I feel as though using mortar is cheating, a shortcut we’re unworthy of. I ask, “Where do you want the arch?” He looks at me funny, and grows serious. “You think we can do it?” I am confused. My old man never seeks my opinion nor my help if he can help it. He never considers me his equal. I clear my throat, try to appear more confident than I feel. With a lowered voice, I say, “Sure.”

After that, we go back to work. We change places and Adrian hands me rocks which I weigh and position. I sometimes shake my head and point to a different stone and he obediently hands me the correct one. I make sound decisions – the new wall is taking shape nicely but we will soon be running out of stones. Adrian explains how to form a corner stone and says he will order more slabs and research how to build an arch. I prepare the corner, carefully chiselling the stone into place.

I dream of stones all night. They speak to me of truth and destiny. They sit tight and comfy, solid in their new homes. My mind is reviewing the moves, becoming more efficient as the night wears on. In the morning, I have decided to become a stonemason. I research it on the computer. You can make a decent living if you’re good at it. I feel I show promise, but need more exposure. I resolve to continue working on the wall, perhaps adding a personal touch here and there. The arch will be my final exam.

Thursday, my chores all done, I stop by Adrian’s again. He’s added large slabs on top of the wall and they’ve held. I am happy to see that. The new section blends in well, as far as the technique goes, though the stones are not weathered. When plants start growing in and around it, it will feel more rounded. “You ordered more stones?” “They will be in by end of week. Do you know of Hadrian’s Wall?” He proceeds to tell me all about the Romans, their history and fortifications. Time flies by, as I help him prune the small orchard on the side of the house.

As I am getting ready to leave, he asks, “What does your father think of you coming here?” I shrug. “I would like to pay you for your work.” I wouldn’t mind a new bike, that’s for sure. “I don’t know about regular hours. I need to help out at home first. Let me see with my da.” I bike home, my head swimming in possibilities as pebbles shoot out from under my threads. Life is good.

Like an eagle, only different

He soared. He found a column of hot air and rose with it as on top of a geyser. The air supported him without him having to flap his wings. He banked sharply to the left and sped down, his wings loosely tucked close to his body. Soon his brother Jaja had joined him and they started playing chicken. But a movement caught his eye and he forgot about the childish game. Jaja sensed his shift in focus but he was too late. The prey was already squirming in his brother’s claws and he was left to his own devices. Jaja sat on the branches of a dead tree, surveying the ground for movement. He was distracted by his brother’s loud munching and the ripping of flesh. He twitched impatiently and tried to focus over his stomach’s growls. He lacked his brother’s single-mindedness, and often went hungry. He had a thirst for knowledge that would surely spell his doom.
When he did catch a prey, Jaja might let it go if the poor thing could teach him a new word. In that way, the inhabitants of the woods spent time learning new concepts. Soon, a new generation of learned mice took over. They gathered new foods for him to try in the hopes they would be spared. From a pure carnivore, Jaja became omnivorous. His diet was more varied and his intellectual life richer.
He developed a longing for travels after a long discussion with a Chinese bird who had escaped from his cage. They became friends as he had finally found a stimulating companion. They hunted together, teaching each other tricks of the trade. They both had varied diets and progressively moved out of their habitat. One day, Jaja and Song saw a gaggle of humans with binoculars. A few days later, they were captured, drugged, tagged and released. Try as they may, they could not remove the tag from their bodies.
They got used to the extra weight. The tag actually afforded them some protection against poachers as their whereabouts were monitored. They eventually parted ways in South America, where they were enticed by colourful females. Jaja reminisced in old age about his eventful life up North but his kin thought those were the ravings of an old bird. Nobody had ever heard anything as outrageous as learned mice and Chinese birds.
His brilliant tag had tarnished over time. It gave him a distinctive air. With his fine mind, he went on to teach promising youth who hunted on his behalf. He had always been kind, and was cherished until the end. He planted the migratory seed in young minds, and is credited with the discovery of faraway lands and the introduction of new foods that gave his people an edge. The species diverged as it adapted to new environments and resisted well to climate change. It also spawned the finest philosophers of its day.

The Prince

He bowed deeply, with a flourish of his feathered cap. The prince cried excitedly, “Is it time?” The painter replied, “The light is very flattering at this time of day. The others have taken position.” The prince went to the yellow room, which served as a studio. It was a large room, to accommodate all the courtesans. He changed into flowing red robes. They were creating an intimate yet daring portrait, though following the rules of the day. The king’s emblems were discreetly alluded to, his crown and scepter discarded on a settee. A bathtub was in the background, his lover of the time still in it, a coiled white towel on his head, another draped on half the tub on which he reclined. The poor boy was shivering, the water having cooled off while they all waited for the prince’s arrival. The prince’s tame tiger lay on the floor, between royalty and the boy, a symbol of strength and dominion. He was enormous, well-fed, chained to the bath’s cat paw, a royal motif in vogue at the time. The prince struck a pose, holding an ornate mirror, his powdered wig just so, his valet strengthening the folds into elegant whorls. “Music,” commanded the prince.

The quartet started playing, the painter painting, and a hush fell on those assembled. The scene was unlike anything they had ever witnessed. They were used to the prince’s eccentricities but this latest one was beyond understanding. It was to be a surprise for the Queen, and a surprise it would be. Of course she knew of the lover, her son was none too discreet, but they would still get an heir out of him yet. The traditional elements of a royal painting were all there, though subverted. It was Dali before Dali, a hint of the Revolution before it happened, colonialism, decadence all wrapped in one. With a frisson, they wondered if the painter would be put to death for creating such a grotesque, yet oddly engaging, portrait. It was close to finished. Clearly the painter and the prince were enjoying their work, and seemed oblivious to the dangers inherent to the deed.

“The king!” announced a guardsman, and everyone’s attention shifted to the door. He came in with a huff. “What is that you are painting? Bring it over.” The paint was still wet and concern could be read on the painter’s features. He motioned to his assistants, explaining in urgent tones where to hold the frame to avoid smudges or dropping it. The assistants walked uneasily towards the king, dropping to their knees as they came closer. The guardsman put his spear in front of them and they stopped a few meters from the king. A wide grin relaxed his features. He looked at the painter and made a cutting gesture at his throat. The painter paled, close to fainting. “My king, you don’t like it?” asked the prince, offended. “Amid all this nonsense, the painter had the good grace of making you look healthy,” he replied. This was the royal painter. He always fleshed out the skinny to make them look healthy. He had added a double chin to the lanky prince, and given him the required haughty air. “Your queen will be pleased,” he added, turning away with his retinue.

“We’re done for the day,” said the prince, his good mood vanished. His lover wrapped himself in the large towel and got out of the bath covered in goosebumps. A maidservant toweled him energetically, to get the blood flowing again, lest he catch cold. The king’s visit had put a damper on the gathering. “I’m hungry,” exclaimed the prince. “Get me a snack.” The order was relayed and a long table set up in the green room. The meal was an elaborate affair, the wine flowed and the music mused. The prince’s frown melted as his companion made him laugh. The painter and his assistants did not join in the revelry. The painter had taken his leave and had the painting shipped to his apartments in the palace. He felt trapped. This was his best work but nobody understood it. He was a modernist, creating what passed for extravagant and amusing art, but it was very serious to him. He agonized over his compositions.

He knew the prince well, since his childhood, and this portrait captured his essence – he was sensual, authoritarian, vain and shrewd. He wanted to please and shock. He also wanted the throne and its power. He acted like a spoiled brat but was far from it. He just did not want to appear as a threat. The painting was calculated to destabilize and engross, but he may have miscalculated. The prince might not hesitate to throw him under the cart or have the painting destroyed. The painter slept fitfully, the painting at the foot of his bed. He woke up several times during the night, afraid when he heard steps coming his way. He had resolved to steal away with the painting, to live as a destitute, rather than seeing it or himself destroyed.

The thunder of feet he had heard in the night was not meant for him, however. Messengers from all over the country had been coming in, bearing bad news. An invasion was imminent. The painting was forgotten as troops were raised in earnest. It was time, yet again, for war.

Asylum

Well I came upon this woman, see, and she was writhing on the ground with foam on her lips, her body all rigid, only the white of her eyes showing. It was a full moon too. She was a sight to see.

I knew there was no point slapping her cause there was no sense to be had. I had seen this in a horse once, a mare, and they had shot her to put her out of her misery. And so I did.

After the shot rang, people from all around came running in various stages of undress. All were wearing their boots, and some wore their holster and gun. I had started digging her grave but not a soul was stirring to help. She was a sorry sight with her brain outside her skull, and the foam congealed around her mouth.

The sheriff was called. He did not help with the digging either.

As I said in court, I had seen the “event” in a dream a few days ago, and I knew I had to stay away from the Vampire to avoid her bite and become one myself. They said Jane, the victim, suffered from epilepsy. You have to pity those who will not accept the truth of vampires. I denied it forcefully, and the good doctor had me committed to an asylum, whereby I avoided the noose.

I get along well with Napoleon and Marie Stuart. They are my kind of people.